After months of planning, you’ve decided to quit your desk job to pursue startup stardom. You know your idea is a good one, and plenty of people — your mom, your significant other, your work friends — agree with you. They wouldn’t lie to you, so it’s time to jump in, right?
Wrong. Startups fail for plenty of reasons, but chief among them is a lack of product-market fit, according to Harvard Business Review. Somewhere around 42 percent of startups fail because they simply don’t fulfill a market need. Your parents’ and co-workers’ needs may or may not reflect the broader market’s.
Finding product-market fit is a fourfold endeavor. First, be sure you’re solving a real problem for your users. Then, determine how many potential users make up the market. Is it a large enough group to sustain your business? Next, let users interact with your product. Does it actually solve their problem? Finally, determine how many of those potential users would pay for your solution.
In other words, product-market fit is a journey. To truly find it, you’ll need the user by your side every step of the way.
The User’s Journey
The star of the product validation process isn’t you; it’s the user. You’re too close to the problem, and you have preconceived notions and biases that a user won’t have. Understanding their problem, how your solution meets it, and their willingness to pay for it is key to determining the viability of your product.
Users are central to the product validation journey that top brands quite literally walk alongside them. On an investor’s advice, Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky traveled across the country to New York to not only meet the first adopters of the service, but to also become immersed in their lives.
Unsurprisingly, Chesky emerged with a deeper understanding of what consumers wanted from Airbnb. Simply taking more attractive pictures of homes doubled bookings on the site in the first week. Had Chesky not involved the user from day one, Airbnb could have taken a very different flight path than it did.
The Path to Product Validation
Product validation is a perilous journey, but it’s also one you need to walk quickly if you’re to succeed. As you travel, keep these five tips in your pocket for foolproof product validation:
Before you’ve built a prototype, engage with your users. Don’t talk at them — actually have a conversation. It might not seem like it should be your top priority right now, but skipping this step might mean building a product nobody wants.
Philosophie, a design innovation startup based in San Francisco, helps organizations solve their pressing problems and envisions how they’ll operate in the future. “We believe in getting out of the building and engaging with people who are experiencing the described problem,” co-founder and managing director Emerson Taymor writes. “This allows us to experience the full scope of the problem and better predict where the product may fit into the lives of these users.”
Yeti, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco, lives and breathes the listening step of the validation process. It even employs empathy mapping, a process that involves creating a paper mock-up of a user and understanding what sensations he’s experiencing in the problem context.
You don’t have to go quite that far, but the key to a great user conversation is empathy. Really listen to your user’s needs. What is she feeling in the moment of need? What emotions is she experiencing, and how far will she go to address them?
Every brand has a mission. Before, during, and after a customer conversation, remind yourself why your customers have chosen you. Focus on the features that your user can’t live without.
When planning a pivot to the B2C industry, Underground Elephant CEO Jason Kulpa realized that it created a conflict of interest with the company’s existing B2B clients. His advice? “To thine own self be true.”
4. Be agile.
A pivot isn’t always a bad strategy. If your user’s needs shift, so should your product. What’s important isn’t the product or its features, but continuously making the product more valuable to your user. Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup” is a crash course in agility and staying on top of a disruptive business environment.
5. Tell your story.
Erin Berman of Blackbeard Studios is a storyteller extraordinaire. She knows that a compelling message is the way to differentiate your company from the competition. She uses the framework of a mythical hero’s journey to appeal to customers on a deep, emotional level. Whatever your story, make sure it’s unique, unassailable, and resonant enough to connect with users.
Going to your day job might be as exciting as going to the laundromat, but if you want to make your leave more than temporary, you need to validate your product. Because when it comes to finding product-market fit, not even Mom knows better than your user.